Bowl season takes a break for three days and resumes the day after Christmas. Here are three best bets for the bowl games between December 26 and 28.
Cheez-It Bowl: California (-1) over TCU
This bowl is all about who is excited to be there. California returns to a bowl game for the first time since 2015 and only the second time since 2011. They have a second-year coach in Justin Wilcox and it’s realistic to think the Golden Bears’ goal before the season was to make a bowl game.
Wilcox is a defensive-minded coach and focused on offense for years. Making a bowl game would be a huge step in changing the identity of the program, and they got there with seven wins on the season.
TCU has been a consistent bowl participant, even when they moved from the Mountain West to the Big 12 after the 2011 season. The Horned Frogs will be playing in their fifth straight bowl game when they take Chase Field in Phoenix on Wednesday.
TCU was ranked as high as No. 15 in the country during the season and ended up with a 6-6 record. The Horned Frogs needed victories against Baylor and Oklahoma State to get to six wins and be eligible for a bowl.
A program like TCU is used to playing in more prominent bowl games, and they had expectations to win more than six games this season. This program was playing in the Big 12 Championship just over a year ago and now their reward this season is playing in a minor bowl game the day after Christmas.
California should be the more motivated team. I really like them to win in this spot.
Music City Bowl: Purdue (+3.5) over Auburn
Other than the four Playoff participants, there might not be a more motivated team than Purdue this bowl season. The Boilermakers players have to be thrilled that Jeff Brohm turned down the Louisville job to stay in West Lafayette.
Brohm wasn’t turning down just any program. He turned down his hometown school and alma mater before getting a significant raise from Purdue. Now, the focus for Brohm is on football and preparing for the opportunity to face a SEC West program.
Purdue was much better than their 6-6 record indicated. They lost their first three games of the season by a combined eight points. They turned things around with a win over Boston College, then upset Ohio State 49-20 when the Buckeyes were ranked No. 2 in the country in October. They fell to Michigan State the following week in an expected flat spot, and also lost a triple-overtime game to Wisconsin near the end of the season.
Auburn is a team that had higher aspirations entering the season than making the Music City Bowl. No. 9 Auburn defeated No. 6 Washington way back in Week 1 and the goal of making the College Football Playoff seemed reasonable.
The rest of the Tigers’ season didn’t go as planned. Losses to LSU, Mississippi State and an inexcusable home loss to Tennessee dropped Gus Malzahn’s team out of the rankings. They finished the year 7-5 and 3-5 within conference play. The offense regressed with no running back to replace the production of Kerryon Johnson, and Jarrett Stidham didn’t play well this season.
I think Purdue has a great shot at winning this game, so I really like them as an underdog of more than a field goal. Purdue quarterback David Blough should have success in this game, and keep an eye out for true freshman wide receiver Rondale Moore.
Alamo Bowl: No. 24 Iowa State (+3) over No. 13 Washington State
Washington State is coming off a special season, where they proved a lot of people wrong. They were expected to win just six games and ended up with 10 wins, and a College Football Playoff ranking as high as No. 8 before their loss to Washington in the regular season finale.
Mike Leach deserves a lot of credit, but now he comes into a situation where he has been exposed in the past. The Cougars are 1-3 in bowl games under Leach and the lone win was at the Sun Bowl in El Paso against Miami in 2015. I doubt the kids from Miami were too motivated for that game after having to spend Christmas in West Texas.
The trend of Mike Leach struggling in bowl games at Washington State makes sense because the opposition has extra time to prepare for his unique offensive system. The Cougars are coming off back-to-back Holiday Bowl losses the last two seasons. They lost 17-12 to Minnesota as nine-point favorites in 2016, and last season they were clobbered 42-17 by Michigan State.
Iowa State is an up-and-coming program in the Big 12. Head Coach Matt Campbell took over a program that won eight total games over three seasons from 2013-15 and now the Cyclones are making their second-straight bowl appearance.
They finished 8-5 last season with a Liberty Bowl victory to cap off Campbell’s second year. Iowa State won eight regular season games in 2018 and are being rewarded with a Friday night bowl game the day before the College Football Playoff.
Iowa State started the season 1-3 and rattled off seven wins in their last eight games. The season turned around when freshman quarterback Brock Purdy took control of the offense. Purdy threw for 1,935 yards and 16 touchdowns over the eight games where he threw a pass. You could argue that Iowa State is better than their record because Purdy didn’t play in early-season losses against Iowa, Oklahoma and TCU.
This is one of the few games where a team has a coaching edge against Mike Leach, but I think this is especially true in a bowl setting. I like Iowa State to cover the spread as underdogs and win the game on the field.